Alaska Mainland Jun 13—24, 2006

Posted by Barry Zimmer

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Barry Zimmer

Barry Zimmer has been birding since the age of eight. His main areas of expertise lie in North and Central America, but his travels have taken him throughout much of the wo...

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I often tell people that the Nome area is my single favorite birding spot in North America. A quick summary of highlights from our 2006 Alaska Mainland tour should provide ample evidence of why this is the case. We arrived in Nome at around 11 a.m. on the first full day of our tour, and wanted to have an early lunch to allow as much time as possible on the Teller Road in the afternoon. We made two quick stops at roadside ponds en route to the restaurant and were treated to a female Bar-tailed Godwit, numerous Red-necked Phalaropes, breeding-plumaged Red-throated Loons and Red-necked Grebes, fabulous Long-tailed Jaegers sailing overhead, and a Northern Shrike?all in about 15 minutes!

After lunch we spent the remainder of the day on the Teller Road. We saw over 50 musk oxen in this time, some right next to the road. Avian highlights were almost too numerous to mention. At one spot along the road we had Rock Ptarmigan, Northern Wheatear, Rock Sandpiper, Red Knot, Snow Bunting, and stunning American Golden-Plovers all in view practically at once! Talk about overload. In addition we tallied gorgeous breeding-plumaged Pacific Golden and Black-bellied plovers, walk-away scope views of American Dipper, a very responsive Arctic Warbler, Yellow Wagtails, several Hoary Redpolls, and a handsome red fox. Generally speaking this road is considered the least birdy of the three roads that lead out of Nome!

The next day we ventured north from town on the Kougarok Road where our prime target was the incomparable Bluethroat. We made several “unsuccessful” stops searching for the Bluethroat and had to “settle” for nesting Golden Eagle; Wandering Tattler; stunning Harlequin Ducks; another Northern Shrike; numerous Gray-cheeked Thrushes; Golden-crowned, Fox, and American Tree sparrows; both species of redpolls; a gray wolf in the road; and several moose (we would finish with 22 moose for the day). Finally we caught up with two territorial male Bluethroats that performed nicely with their wonderful skylarking displays and magnificent blue throats with red bull’s-eyes. The remainder of the day yielded three Willow Ptarmigan, a pair of Gyrfalcons, and, for those who made the hike at Coffee Dome, great studies of a Bristle-thighed Curlew and a very unexpected Buff-breasted Sandpiper. On our way into town a late Red Phalarope (arguably the prettiest shorebird of all) was found on a small pond near our hotel.

The birdiest road?the Council Road?lay ahead for our last full day. Skirting along the edge of famous Safety Lagoon and eventually climbing up into high tundra, this road offers a variety of habitats and the best chance for rarities. Unfortunately, once we rounded Cape Nome, strong winds greeted us and lingered throughout most of the day. Despite this we had fantastic Pacific Loons, two Emperor Geese right next to the road, male Eurasian Wigeon, two Steller’s Eiders, a sub-adult male King Eider, Rough-legged Hawk, countless Long-tailed Jaegers, Aleutian Tern at point blank range, more Bar-tailed Godwits, three Slaty-backed Gulls, a Sabine’s Gull, and repeated great views of Yellow Wagtails and Lapland Longspurs. Hoping for an Arctic Loon (rare, but increasingly regular along this road), we offered a post-dinner return to Safety Lagoon. No sign of the loon, but as we scanned the lagoon we found a Whooper Swan?a superb Asiatic vagrant and unrecorded from Nome for about 15 years! We had only a portion of the group with us, so we returned to town for the others. By the time we got back to where the swan had been we could not relocate it. We did have two full adult King Eiders up on the beach providing amazing views as consolation. The next morning we had two hours to bird before departing for Anchorage. We desperately wanted everyone to see the swan, and luck was on our side; with nine minutes to go before we had to head to the airport, we refound the bird and had wonderful views. In addition we also had great views of Arctic Loon right along the beach nearby. I think you can see why I like Nome so much!

Of course our Alaska Mainland tour offers so much more than just Nome. There is the Seward/Kenai Fjords National Park area where highlights included Trumpeter Swans on a nest, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Spruce Grouse, myriad alcids including hundreds of both Horned and Tufted puffins, Thick-billed Murre, and very close views of Kittlitz’s and Ancient murrelets, Red-faced Cormorant,¬†nesting Three-toed Woodpeckers, Varied Thrush, and Pine Grosbeak. Mammals were equally well represented with black bear, grizzly bear, mountain goat, Dall sheep, Dall porpoise, orca, humpback whale, sea otter, and river otter among the more memorable.

Finally there is the Denali portion of the tour. We had Mount McKinley in full view for an entire morning on our way up to the park. In addition we had great views of a Northern Hawk Owl (at one point being mobbed by both Bohemian Waxwings and White-winged Crossbills!) along the Denali Highway. The park itself yielded five more grizzlies, numerous caribou, yet another Northern Shrike, and more Willow Ptarmigan.

In all we totaled 170 species of birds (a record-setting effort for this tour), 23 species of mammals, and countless breathtaking vistas in the Last Frontier.